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Digging in to solo Monk

By Jon Garelick

AUGUST 17, 1998:  Throughout the two-CD collection Monk Alone: The Complete Columbia Solo Studio Recordings 1962-1968 (Columbia/Legacy), Thelonious Monk hammers the piano keys, but at first you might not even notice that. It's a program of mostly standards, and such is Monk's love for the melody that none of the tunes ever disappears beneath the weight of his hands. He takes them at medium and ballad tempos, often supporting them with oom-pah striding bass figures in his left hand. He may embellish the melody, but he never leaves it behind. Instead, he works patiently, obsessively, with each tune, sometimes playing it over and over again, chorus after chorus, revealing an inner detail here and there with voice-leading, adding or subtracting notes, letting a phrase hang for a pregnant pause before resolving it with a deadweight drop of his hand. It's as though he were carving each performance, each song, out of stone.

Monk (1917-1982) was an original when he entered the jazz world, and he remains one. He's considered one of the founding fathers of bebop, but bop was defined in part by speed, a quality Monk the pianist was apparently indifferent to (his friend Bud Powell was the definitive bebop speedster). His playing, despite its idiosyncrasies, owed more to the earlier stride stylists like James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. As a composer, he wrote band pieces noted for their angular melodies, unpredictable harmonies, and displaced rhythmic accents. His pieces were recognizable as songs, and they swung, but they were full of asymmetrical melodic twists and turns and odd phrase lengths. They were slow rhumbas, or comic Charlie Chaplin strolls, but with an underlying gravity, and his ballads " 'Round Midnight" and "Ruby, My Dear" early on became standards.

If musicians found Monk's own tunes daunting (and they still do), they loved him as an accompanist. He was a composer, and he knew how a piece was supposed to go. He insisted that his sidemen focus on melody and rhythm ("Rhythm and melody were one for him," his protégé Steve Lacy has said), perhaps because he took his own extraordinary harmonic gift for granted, as second nature. When he "comped," Monk left plenty of room for the soloist, even opened unseen doors for him.

Monk Alone is almost all standards, solo pieces drawn from all his albums for Columbia, plus a second disc of rarities and alternate takes. It was his most prosperous period -- he was recording with a major label for the first time, and he made the cover of Time magazine. But his flow of original compositions slowed to a trickle (he stopped performing completely by the late '70s and became a recluse), and some fans consider his group recordings from this period secondary to the work he'd done with the Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside labels earlier in his career.

Monk's mannerisms are apparent on the Columbia sides -- the ubiquitous stride rhythms, the emphatic dissonances, the top-register trills (almost always answered by a trill at the bottom of the keyboard). His top-to-bottom whole-tone runs are especially comic -- they're like a set of children's blocks tumbling down stairs -- and they're a signature touch.

But past these mannerisms is an extraordinary wealth of detail. Monk once told Lacy, "The inside of a tune [the bridge] is what makes the outside sound good," and it's extraordinary to hear how he varies each chorus. The opening chorus of the third take of "Nice Work if You Can Get It" has a high chiming quality; the bridge enters in a low register, like a secondary, answering voice. "Memories of You" grows in rhythmic intensity with each chorus, and he savors details like a hammered low note that he sustains with the pedal while trilling way up at the top. In "I Surrender, Dear" (take #1) he introduces a left-hand countermelody on the bridge that nonetheless sustains the pulse ("Rhythm and melody were one for him").

There are pieces on the Columbia set that are jazz standards because Monk played them -- "Just a Gigolo," "Sweet and Lovely." There's one tune, "I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams," originally from 1928, apparently popularized by Rudy Vallee, that I know only from these performances by Monk (it features a lovely falsetto chorus, and some delicate left-hand bicycling figures in the last chorus). The details always contribute to the overall arc of the piece -- they're all different ways of "saying" the tune. Despite his percussive attack, Monk achieves a kind of tension that one would expect only from more "legato" players. His articulation -- how he gets from one note to another -- is a marvel. The performances are swinging and funny, tender and deep.

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